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April 10 Is A Dramatic Day In New Zealand’s History

On April 10, 1919, the preliminary results of a referendum showed that New Zealanders had narrowly voted for prohibition by a majority of around 13,000 votes. However, when the votes of soldiers still overseas after World War I were later added in, the right to drink was retained by just over 10,000 votes.

April 10, 1968, was one of the blackest days in New Zealand history when the inter-island ferry, Wahine, sank at the entry to Wellington Harbour with the initial loss of 51 lives, later to rise to 53. For rugby followers, April 10, 1973, will be remembered as the day Prime Minister Norman Kirk cancelled that year’s planned South African rugby tour to New Zealand. Other sports lovers will recall April 10, 1984, as the day when Dame Susan Devoy became the first New Zealander to win a British Squash Open title, the first of eight such titles she would win.

April 10, 2024, now seems set to be remembered, to paraphrase songwriter Don McLean as “the day the television media died” with Newshub’s confirmation that all its news and current affairs programmes will cease on July 5, quickly followed by TVNZ’s announcements of severe cuts to its news services, including the cancellation from May of flagship programmes, “Fair Go” and “Sunday”.

Newshub’s and TVNZ News’ demise had been foreshadowed some weeks ago, so this week’s announcements were not really a surprise. Many commentators have lamented that the end of television news and current affairs broadcasting, as we have known it, is a significant challenge for our democracy. They argue there will be a loss of diversity of opinion, and that having on to rely on the more limited services that the state broadcaster will now provide runs the risk of pro-government news predominating.

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However, a recent survey of New Zealanders’ news watching habits shows a different picture and offers a partial explanation for Newshub’s and TVNZ’s decisions. In short, we have been relying less and less on television as our major news provider for some time now and have also been becoming less and less trusting of television news’ impartiality. While this mirrors an international trend, the decline in viewership and trust levels has been more marked and sudden in New Zealand than elsewhere.

A contributing factor seems to have been the “Podium of Truth”, “Jessica/Tova” circus we endured during the Covid19 lockdowns, and the government’s establishment of the $50 million public interest journalism fund to support media outlets during the pandemic. Whether intended or not, these created the public impression that the government was buying the media’s support to sell its pandemic message. But rather than build public confidence in the media’s credibility, they had precisely the opposite effect.

Add to that, a marked decline in television advertising revenues – Warner Brothers Discovery has estimated that TV3’s annual advertising revenues have fallen by 74% because of the general economic downturn, and the position would be no doubt similar for TVNZ – and this week’s decisions became virtually inevitable.

There have been suggestions of new online streaming arrangements to replace programmes like “Fair Go”, or possible external contracting arrangements to provide contestable new services to both channels, but nothing specific or substantial has emerged so far. While it is not the government’s responsibility to bail out failing industries overtaken by new ways of doing things, the government does have a role to play in preserving the expression of diverse views and ensuring that New Zealanders have access to major national and international news streams.

However, to date, Broadcasting Minister Melissa Lee has been disappointingly quiet. She has expressed her sorrow at the likely heavy loss of jobs and said she is taking advice on the issue, but, as the Prime Minister confirms, has not yet made any specific suggestions to Cabinet. The clock is ticking though – by the time Newshub’s doors close on July 5, New Zealanders have a right to know what alternatives will be in place to ensure they can access quality news services in the future.

On that count, the gloom and despondency now understandably affecting those most directly affected, is unlikely to be long-term. New opportunities and ways of doing things will almost certainly arise to replace what has been lost. In the meantime, we should acknowledge with gratitude the service and professionalism of those whose familiar faces we have got to know over the years and wish them well for the future.

Whatever happens next though, April 10, will continue to be a day of national significance.

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